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The detailed, gruesomely realistic VFX required for ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ were
divided between a large number of vendors. Entity FX in Los Angeles was one of

Law-Abiding-Citizen-7

them, charged with the effects for an execution sequence and a missile launch.
From Digital Media World Magazine out now


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“We also completed a variety of additional visual effects such  as monitor burn-ins and fix-it effects,” said VFX Producer at Entity FX, Dan Rucinski. “We got involved in the post-production phase of the show. On-set visual effects supervision was done by Raymond Gieringer, who hired us and was great to work with. Our first tasks were to complete missile shots for the theatrical trailer.”

Building Suspense
‘Law Abiding Citizen’ graphically portrays the vicious response of a man to the ruthless murder of his family that occurs when robbers break into their home. Entity FX worked on the film for about 16 weeks with a team of 15 to 20 people including Senior VFX Supervisor Mat Beck, compositors, a rotoscope artist and 3D artists on a pipeline consisting of Maya for 3D modelling and animation, boujou for tracking and After Effects and Inferno for compositing and image effects.

Outraged at the release of one of the killers and the failure of the justice system, the script’s protagonist exacts his revenge by orchestrating a string of spectacular assassinations, violent enough to fuel your nightmares. Because their involvement started after the scenes had been shot, Entity FX didn’t need to carry out a previs stage, but their overall job was to contribute to the protagonist’s series of crimes in a way that built up suspense. “It was important that everything on screen keep the audience engaged with these acts and their progression. So while we were often portraying very dramatic, over-the-top moments, the visual effects still needed to feel believable. The execution scene was a critical sequence for us.”

Painful Reality
The sequence, an execution that goes horribly wrong when a convicted murderer is given a lethal injection, is important because it sets the stage for the murders that follow. “Our main research was Internet based, studying a variety of found examples of veins and burst blood vessels. The effects needed to look not only real but painful so we had to find that balance,” explained Dan.

“The actor was filmed on set with markers placed on the face. Using this footage and a proprietary process, we were able to track not only the movements of his body but also the ways his skin deformed as he struggled. This allowed us to bring our network of digital, animated blood vessels appropriately into the scene. Skin discoloration was also added, with spider-like, crawling vein effects.”

While director F. Gary Gray's brief was simply for very realistic effects, in this particular scene, the story and visuals needed to depict not just a regular execution but one where something had gone wrong. “So it was a matter of doing lots of style frames and tests, and getting feedback from Raymond Gieringer until we were able to nail down just how damaged the character needed to be. We used a number of tools, including Maya and Inferno, to get the right look, animation and integration for the pulsing blood vessels. This process included applying a deformation matte that ran through the arteries and veins.”

CG Plus Live Action
Dan noted that the acting for some shots, especially in the execution scene, directly affected their work. “The actor was able to produce a feel of actual physical strain and a few of his veins were popping out quite a bit. His performance really helped bring the visual effects alive. In the shot when Judge Birch is killed, we needed to show the bullet hitting her, as well as the resulting aftermath, such as adding damage to her face as she falls to the side and blood effects.

“The practical effect was great, so it was a matter of enhancing that and tweaking it to reach the desired results. But the actor anticipated the practical effect, so we also needed to stabilise her motion and retime the plate. Extra gore was painted in and we even added a flying CG eyeball for a few frames. We also had to paint out the practical cell phone and replace it with a CG one with debris.”

Criminal Record
Mat Beck has substantial experience as visual effects supervisor on ‘The X-Files’ television series, and Entity FX also worked on both ‘X-Files’ feature films as well, all of which required creepy-realism and is now known for such effects. “We also recently worked on several movies that, while more stylised, also called for gruesome depictions. The ‘Final Destination 3D’, for which we handled the final end sequence, is an entire franchise built around the inevitability of death.

“We did some work on ‘The Spirit’ also, based on Will Eisner's graphic novel, handling a 12-minute attack sequence with the brutal villain The Octopus, played by Samuel Jackson,” Dan said. Other relevant work includes their VFX for the 13-part horror thriller/mystery TV series ‘Harper's Island’, in which a killer tracks down victims one by one with some extreme murder techniques.

“This project allowed us to expand on our techniques for creating realistic effects in this genre. We have a lot of experience creating human body effects, some of them stylised as in the television show ‘Fight Science’ or the ‘Final Destination’ franchise, some of them more real but designed to meet a specific look or context, as in ‘The Spirit’ or ‘The X-Files’. It's always the context and the story that define the results and how you get there. Sometimes it's not about a photorealistic look, but an over-the-top moment. Sometimes the effects need to do something specific – make sure certain information is conveyed, for example – to support a story point. So beyond the look of effect, and how to achieve it, is always the purpose it will serve.”

CG Missile
David Alexander, 3D Artist, was involved with the team’s more explosive effects, such as building and launching a missile. “We needed to have a missile fire and hit an SUV at a specific moment. It wasn't just about seeing the resulting target being hit in a wide shot, but actually seeing the missile being triggered from where it had been set up. We had live footage of the missile stand and to that we added a CG missile, which we modelled and animated in Maya. As the missile launches, we added flames and a smoke trail.

David and the 3D team finds Maya’s particle systems was an effective toolset supporting their explosions work, in particular for billowing and trailing smoke. The elements were tracked into the shot with boujou, and they used After Effects to comp the effects as well as for painting and retiming. “Our references included looking at various real-life examples, such as Javelin missile launches, on video.

Blow Up
“We were supporting a lot of great practical elements, which we enhanced through added CG effects. For example, for the missile launch in the cemetery, they actually blew the car up. Then we integrated the missile as a digital element and added smoke trails, fire elements and debris, such as the vehicle's door flying off,” said David. “Fire was very important to these scenes, of course. We were often integrating our digital fire elements with practically-shot fire or explosion elements, often adding smoke and burning sections of debris.”

Entity FX were responsible for some ‘invisible’ cosmetic and scenic enhancements as well. “These ranged from continuity fixes to digital speedometers, adding camera shake, split-screen effects and monitor replacements. In order to make adjustments for censorship restrictions, we reduced some practical blood in certain shots.”

Keep It Cool
The colourist of a feature like ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ to which several effects teams have contributed shots, has to be particularly aware of consistency across the scenes and from there, through the whole film.

In order to control the look, Visual Effects Supervisor Raymond Gieringer had Company 3 colourist Stephen Nakamura provide a pre-grade to all the visual plates, providing a visual reference for the various visual effects houses that would work on the film. Though this is not a step that every film with visual effects takes, it is something Stephen feels is important to creating a consistent look. "A film can go out to eight visual effects vendors, often with ten people working on it at each location," he said. "That’s 80 different monitors on the same film. With a pre-grade, everyone has a reference for how the final film should look."

Stephen worked with director Gray and cinematographer Jonathan Sela to set and fine-tune the visuals. Working on a DaVinci Resolve system, he was aiming for a soft muted look, somewhat unusual for this type of thriller, because they wanted to give the film a subdued colour pallet as a contrast to the violence of the story. "It's really a very desaturated looking movie," said Stephen. “The colour scheme tends to go toward blues, greens and cyans. We didn't go with heavy blacks or saturated colours. There's a nice elegance to it."

To begin with, Sela shot on Fujifilm's soft-contrast Eterna 400T. Company 3 scanned the material on an ARRISCAN film scanner, outputting 2K DPX files. Stephen enhanced and evened out the soft, cool blue look that Gray and Sela were favouring.

"There are a lot of scenes in prison cells and judges chambers and offices that are meant to look like they're lit by fluorescent fixtures. We went with that look and took it even a little further. The trick is to make sure the actors' faces don't go green or yellow when you're affecting the room overall. So I would often build windows around faces to maintain more control over the individual parts of the frame.”

Words: Adriene Hurst
IMAGES: © Overture Films, courtesy of Entity FX
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